A study has found that free school meals for all could help close the gap between rich and poor children.
The study, undertaken by the National Centre for Social Research, the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Bryson Purdon Social Research looked at the effects free school meals for all pupils had in two pilot areas of Durham and Newham.
It claimed that primary pupils advance by two months on average as a result and that the advances were most pronounced in pupils from less well off homes.
The researchers attributed the attainment boost to improvements in students' productivity.
In a third study area, Wolverhampton, the free meals provision was extended to more, but not all children, in primary and secondary schools. In that area, the researchers found little change in the take-up of school meals or attainment.
The report suggested that nutritionally, school meals were better than packed lunches brought from home, and that pupils were more likely to eat hot food, and have vegetables and carbohydrates in a canteen produced meal. They were also found to be more likely to drink water rather than fizzy drinks.
The report said that teachers noticed the trial had a 'levelling effect' in the quality of lunches eaten by pupils from different backgrounds. It concluded that the attainment increase 'must arise as a result of improvements in productivity whilst at school'.
It further claimed that it would cost around £220 per primary school pupil over two years for the free-for-all approach, and that the pilot appeared to deliver better value for money "than some educational interventions".
However, a spokeswoman from the Department for Education said it would not be viable to offer free school meals for every child: "We are committed to ensuring that free school meals are available to those pupils who need them most, but it is not viable to continue the universal pilots in the current financial climate, she said, "It is right to focus schools' budgets on the government's priority of directly raising attainment for all children."
Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the Children's Food Trust told the BBC that the findings were 'serious food for thought':
"Offering free school meals to every child in Newham and Durham helped to make them more likely to eat a better diet at school, do significantly better in class - with an average of two months more progress by pupils at key stages 1 and 2 - and less fussy about what they ate at home."
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